Tuesday, October 14, 2014

How We Got to Now: The power and legacy of great ideas


How We Got to Now / The history behind
everyday objects that are a part of our
contemporary life.

Steven Johnson is a bestselling author of nine books, including Where Good Ideas Come From, a founder of a variety of influential websites, and the host and co-creator of the PBS and BBC series How We Got to Now. His newest book is my current reading project, the just-published How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World.

It is cerebral fun.

In How We Got to Now, Johnson explores the power and legacy of great ideas by investigating the secret histories -- innovation trails -- behind everyday objects that are a part of our contemporary life. He examines "unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated fields: how the invention of air-conditioning enabled the largest migration of human beings in the history of the species to otherwise uninhabitable cities such as Dubai and Phoenix; how pendulum clocks helped trigger the industrial revolution; and how clean water made it possible to manufacture computer chips."

Each of the six innovations that made the modern world, according to Johnson -- glass, cold, sound, cleanliness, time and light -- garners attention in How We Got to Now. 

"Johnson is a polymath," wrote the Los Angeles Times. "It's exhilarating to follow his unpredictable trains of thought. To explain why some ideas upend the world, he draws upon many disciplines: chemistry, social history, geography, even eco-system science."

In the book's opening chapter about glass, for instance, Johnson writes: "Mirrors appeared so magical that they were quickly integrated into somewhat bizarre sacred rituals: During holy pilgrimages, it became common practice for well-off pilgrims to take a mirror with them. When visiting sacred relics, they would position themselves so that they could catch sight of the bones in the mirror's reflection. Back home, they would then show off these mirrors to friends and relatives, boasting that they had brought back physical evidence of the relic by capturing the reflection of the sacred scene. Before turning to the printing press, Gutenberg had the start-up idea of manufacturing and selling small mirrors for departing pilgrims.

"But the mirror's most significant impact would be secular, not sacred. Filippo Brunelleschi employed a mirror to invent linear perspective in painting, by drawing a reflection of the Florence Baptistry instead of his direct perception of it. The art of the late Renaissance is heavily populated by mirrors lurking inside paintings, most famously in Diego Velázquez's inverted masterpiece, Las Meninas, which shows the artist (and the extended royal family) in the middle of painting King Philip IV and Queen Mariana of Spain. The entire image is captured from the point of view of two royal subjects sitting for their portrait; it is, in a very literal sense, a painting about the act of painting. The king and queen are visible only in one small fragment of the canvas, just to the right of Velázquez himself: two small, blurry images reflected back in a mirror.

"As a tool, the mirror became an invaluable asset to painters who could now capture the world around them in a fare more realistic fashion, including the detailed features of their own faces."

Who knew!

In reviewing How We Got to Now, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote: "Monks transcribing religious manuscripts in the 12th and 13th centuries began using pieces of crystal the better to see their work with, and so spectacles were born. And then came Gutenberg, whose printed books created a bigger market for them. In 1610, Galileo used a crystal lens to make the telescope, through which he observed moons orbiting Jupiter, and from there came the doctrine-shattering revelation that the Earth is not the center of the universe.

"The discovery had a reverberating impact that is still being absorbed today. Not only did it reveal a truth about the physical world, it reflected back on the human sense of our place in time and space."

Walter Isaacson, the author of Steve Jobs, calls Johnson "the Darwin of technology. Through fascinating observations and insights, he enlightens us about the origins of ideas."

By connecting all of the important dots through the centuries, Steven Johnson takes us on a wonderful journey through time and innovation. And, in doing so, he makes learning about science and technology great fun.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Songs of Innocence: U2's most generous album giveaway

Free music / U2's Song of Innocence

On the same September day that Apple's chief executive, Tim Cook, unveiled his company's iPhone 6 earlier this month in Cupertino, Calif., U2 made a surprise appearance that shook the world and left 500 million iTunes subscribers with a little some extra in their library, the supergroup's new album Songs of Innocence.

I welcomed the opportunity at downloading the latest music from Bono -- getting my hands on something free that otherwise would have cost me at least $9.99 or more. I've listened to the entire album at least half a dozen times in the three weeks since I added the album on Sept. 9, the first day of its release, to my iTunes library and iPod. And, there's lots to like on Songs of Innocence. There's plenty of Bono's confessions to go around for everyone.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Bono said, "We wanted to make a very personal album. ... Let's try to figure out why we wanted to be in a band, the relationships around the band, our friendships, our lovers, our family. The whole album is first journeys -- first journeys geographically, spiritually, sexually. And that's hard. But we went there."

However, within a few days of its release (Apple owns a five-week distribution and streaming exclusivity), which Cook marketed as "the largest album release of all time," I came to realize that my enthusiasm for U2 -- I've always really, really liked that band -- placed me in a minority. Initially, there was a backlash via social media that caused a bit of controversy.

"Who is U2 and why are they sending me their spam music files?" voiced one disgruntled recipient.

It hasn't always been easy to remember that fact that many, many people really like U2 "amid the caustic -- and often hilarious -- responses to the band's Sept. 9 release of Songs of Innocence," wrote Time magazine in a recent cover story.

According to Time, "U2's decision to team up with Apple to deliver the new album to every iTunes subscriber, unasked, raised valid questions about consumer choice and personal space in a world that routinely infringes on both. Moreover, while Apple paid U2 for the album, critics of the deal suggest this point may have been lost on iTunes customers who got it for free (including yours truly). If so, that messaging is certainly at odds with U2's intentions."

In analyzing Apple's U2 mistake for Forbes, contributor Bobby Owsinski wrote: "For U2, the motivation here appears to be all money. There's been no mention anywhere of exactly how much Apple paid the band for the album, but it was mostly likely far more than they could ever have expected had they released in conventionally.

"In fact, this album release appeared to be a last minute decision since there have been reports for some time that the band had postponed its release until 2015 and had pushed the tour schedule back to coincide. With no current tour, U2 can't capitalize on either the album or the current hype surrounding it."

The lead single on Songs of Innocence, "The Miracle (of Joe Ramone)", is currently being featured in an Apple TV commercial  that's part of a promotional campaign for the band on which Apple is spending $100 million.

"Being part of a $100 million ad campaign is always nice though, but again, to what end?" asks Owsinksi. " It's not about brand building since their brand is well-established, and they're not promoting anything at the moment, so it must have been a good chunk of change that Apple slid into the band's coffers.

"So it looked like both parties were off the mark here, although in a couple of weeks we'll all have forgotten about it and moved on to other things."

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Modernism: Every picture has a story


A rare opportunity / Modernism comes to the de Young.

Imagine having a rare opportunity to to see one of the most important gifts of modern art ever made to our nation.

On a recent Friday night, my wife and I visited the de Young Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park to see Modernism from the National Gallery of Art: The Robert & Jane Meyerhoff Collection. It is showing in the Herbst Exhibition Galleries through October 12.

Ellsworth Kelly / Orange Green (1966).
The de Young is the sole venue for this collection, which encompasses many of the finest works by Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Frank Stella, among many -- one of the most representative collections of American painting from the postwar period. It also includes a rare display of Barnett Newman's 15-painting modern art masterpiece The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani. 

Modernism represents the first time that "a significant portion" of the Meyerhoff Collection has been shown outside of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. And, of course, it only adds to the prestige of impressive shows to come to the de Young and its sister museum, the Legion of Honor, in the past year. They include: Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966; David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition; The Art of Bulgari: La Dolce Vita and Beyond, 1950-1990; and Anders Zorn: Sweden's Master Painter. Added up, these special exhibitions have helped draw more than 1 million visitors to these San Francisco museums between July 2013 and January 2014.

Walking through the exhibition galleries at the de Young to see Modernism, I was surprised to see that not only was photography allowed -- often it isn't during special exhibitions -- it seemed to be encouraged. After all, every picture has a story -- and I was only all too glad to be able to photograph many of my favorites.

Roy Lichtenstein / Painting with Statue of Liberty (1983).

According to Fine Arts magazine, "In the late 1950s, the Baltimore-based real estate developer and philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff and his wife, the late Jane Meyerhoff, began collecting art by the then-emergent Abstract Expressionists, acquiring paintings and works on paper by Grace Hartigan, Hans Hofmann, and Clyfford Still. Works by Josef Albers, Joseph Cornell and Ad Reinhardt -- artists who rose to prominence in the wake of World War II -- were also among the couple's earliest acquisitions. The Meyerhoffs then focused on the generation of artists who followed  the Abstract Expressionists -- Johns, Kelly, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, and Stella -- all of whom also became close friends of the pair." By the time of Jane's death, in 2004, the Meyerhoff's collection included more than 300 works in a variety of media by more than 50 artists.

Among the works that are featured in the de Young installation are: Perilous Night (1982) by Jasper Johns; Orange Green (1966) by Ellsworth Kelly; Painting with Statue of Liberty (1983) by Roy Lichtenstein; Picasso's Skull (1989-1990) by Brice Marden; Archive (1963) by Robert Rauschenberg, and Flin Flon IV (1969) by Frank Stella.

Observing / The Stations of the Cross.
Meanwhile, one can't help but notice the centerpiece of Modernism from the National Gallery of Art: Newman's The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani (1958-1966), which was presented within a large, dedicated room, "experienced as the artist intended, as a single work in an intimate, contemplative space."

Writing about Newman's The Stations of the Cross, San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker noted: "Newman saw himself as seeking and finding an abstract pictorial code for ultimate human concerns: the polarities of light and darkness, of wholeness and transience, despair and longing for redemption, living and dying.

"Sighting back from our own grossly materialistic moment, across the watershed of minimalism, we may find it hard to take Newman's aspirations seriously, but the paintings still produce the sort of elevated feeling that people frequently say they seek in art."

Indeed, every picture has a story.

Let the conversation begin!

All photographs by Michael Dickens © 2014.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

It's summer vacation time ... see you in a week!


In Shakespeare Garden / Enjoying a quiet evening's walk alone with nature
and the Bard in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park 

It's late summer, a time of the year when many of us here in the U.S. take a week's vacation to rest, relax, rejuvenate and enjoy a break from routine.

As we head into the Labor Day weekend, I've decided to take the week off from my blog and enjoy a walk in the park, both literally and figuratively.

See you in a week with some thoughts about Modernism from the National Gallery of Art, an exhibition whose sole venue is the de Young Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.

Editor's note: Vacation travel can do wonders to one's body, mind and spirit. I enjoyed it so much I decided to take an extra week off from my blog. It will return on Tuesday, Sept. 9. Cheers.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Jason Collins: Comfortable in his own identity and skin


Jason Collins in conversation at the Commonwealth Club /
"Now that I have this voice and platform, I want to speak out
for all of the of the gay athletes out there."

At 7-feet tall, Jason Collins easily stands out in a crowded room not only for his height but also for his skin color. Yet, it's his personality and intellect that draws your attention toward him.

Last year, Collins became the first openly gay active male athlete in major American professional sports when he came out in a highly publicized personal essay published in the May 6, 2013 issue of Sports Illustrated magazine.

"Depending on the situation," Collins laughs, "I'm not always the gay one. Sometimes, I'm just the tall one, or the black one. When I turn heads, is it because people know I'm gay, or is it because I'm a seven-foot-tall African-American man?"

Last week, speaking in front of an audience of nearly 600 young professionals at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco for the Commonwealth Club's InForumSF conversation series, Collins shared the stage with journalist Jose Antonio Vargas and spoke candidly for 75 minutes about his journey of self-discovery and self-acknowledgement, and how coming out of the closet in a machismo professional sport powered by super stars like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant has changed his life.

"I just spoke to a group of NBA rookies and I had to explain what LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) stood for." While some in the audience snickered at the ignorance of it all, it prompted Collins to speak up: "It's all about education and exposure. Some guys have had no education and exposure to the LGBT community."

After he came out in April 2013, Collins waited patiently for a phone call from an NBA team who was willing to take a chance on the 255-pound veteran center -- a consummate professional and veteran of six pro teams who's appeared in two NBA finals, and who just happened to be gay. Certainly, there was bound to be one team willing to take a chance on the free agent. Finally, the Brooklyn Nets contacted Collins last February and signed him to a contract for the back end of the 2013-14 season, where he averaged 1.1 points and 0.9 rebounds.

For much of his pro basketball career, Collins has worn number 34, the same number he wore in college. However, after being traded to Boston and later Washington, then signing with Brooklyn, he chose a different number. "I needed a jersey number to go with my new identity," Collins said. "I went with 98 for the year 1998: the year Matthew Shepard died and the year the Trevor Project was founded."

Despite the personal fulfillment he's achieved, Collins believes there's still a stigma of homophobia in the NBA. "I used to hear that kind of talk a lot in the locker room," he said. "Since I came out, I don't hear it at all. Of course, that might have something to do with it being a $25,000 fine now. I tell guys, you don't have to be politically correct -- you just have to find more creative ways of cutting each other down."

Collins says matter-of-factly, at least one unnamed player trash-talked him during a game after he came out. "Yeah, he's a knucklehead. My attitude about that is: I'm going to foul you. Hard."

While some have labeled the Stanford University graduate as the "big brother San Francisco never had," the polite and affable Collins admits that at times he still feels like the new kid in school, still getting comfortable with his new identity and celebrity. He credits a gay uncle for being his personal role model and said that he's garnered moral support from fellow Stanford alums like U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, who was his college roommate, and from Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of President Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was his classmate. He also gives props to prominent gay athletes like Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King for being trailblazers as well as sharing their wisdom and advice with him.

Although he can laugh about it now, Collins confessed to the audience: "I didn't kiss a man until I was 34-years-old." On dating for the first time, he said: "Having my heart broken, something that most people go through for the first time in high school, didn't happen to me until I was 34. There was a lot of accelerated learning curve going on there. The Stanford student in me wants to say: 'Okay, we're going to master this.'"

Before he came out publicly, Collins had been in an eight-year relationship with fellow Stanford alumnus and former WNBA center Carolyn Moos. The two were engaged to be married, but Collins called off the wedding in 2009.

Looking back, Collins said coming out to his family was a positive experience filled with love and respect. He recalled his first conversation about being gay with somebody outside of his family circle happened when he told his long-time agent Arn Tellem. "I called my agent. Now, normally, when a player calls an agent after a trade, it's to fire him. But I said 'I've got something to tell you: I'm gay.' He said, 'Well, Jason, you can still play.'"

While there's still a competitive fire in him, Collins told the audience he's undecided about whether to play another season in the NBA. With a lucrative, multi-million dollar endorsement from Nike, Collins realizes he can be as much a positive impact off the court as on it by speaking out on issues like equality and education as well as sustainability and health and fitness. He has a positive story that's worth sharing with others.

"Now that I have this voice and platform, I want to speak out for all of the gay athletes out there," Collins said. Seemingly comfortable in his own identity and skin, Collins is reaching equality both on and off the court by becoming an ambassador for acceptance and peace. In April, Collins was featured on the cover of Time Magazine's "100 Most Influential People in the World."

Reflecting on his life as a professional basketball player, Collins said: "Thirteen years is a long career for an athlete. "I used to be able to jump and touch the top of the white square behind the hoop with ease. As the years go by, you watch your hand go lower and lower on that square. Father Time is undefeated against us all.

"I'm really grateful for my Stanford degree now. On the other hand, I can still dunk."

Photograph of Jason Collins at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco's Castro Theatre by Michael Dickens © 2014.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A tremendous challenge, a tremendous responsibility


Becky Hammon / "There have been so many other women that are doing
really, really great things, and I'm just kind of following in their paths."

Last week, the San Antonio Spurs showed why they're trailblazers in American professional basketball by announcing they've hired six-time WNBA All-Star point guard Becky Hammon as the first full-time, paid female assistant on an NBA coaching staff.

The reigning champion Spurs have been innovative, outside-the-box leaders in bringing in internationally-talented players for the past two decades -- France's Tony Parker, Argentina's Manu Ginobili and Australia's Patty Mills come to mind -- and, earlier this summer, hired European coach Ettore Messina to join head coach Gregg Popovich's staff. So, it was not surprising that fresh off winning their fifth NBA championship, the Spurs would add to their history of forward-thinking moves by hiring Hammon. 

Becky Hammon / She's a trailblazer on court.
Now, she's a joining the San Antonio Spurs as 

the NBA's first full-time female assistant coach.
At age 37, the 5-foot-6 Hammon is retiring this month from a 16-season playing career in the WNBA in which she ranks fourth in career assists and seventh in points scored. The South Dakota native starred collegiately at Colorado State where she was a three-time All-American point guard, then became a naturalized Russian citizen in 2008 and represented the Russian national team in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. She becomes the second woman to serve on an NBA coaching staff -- the first was Lisa Boyer, who was a part-time, non-paid member of the Cleveland Cavaliers staff in the 2001-02 season -- but the first who has been hired to a full-time, paid position.

"It's a tremendous challenge, and it comes with tremendous responsibility," said Hammon. "There have been so many other women that are doing really, really great things, and I'm just kind of following in their paths."

During the 2013-14 season, not only did Hammon attend Spurs practices, coaching meetings and film-review sessions, she also sat behind the bench for the NBA champions during home games while coming off a knee injury.

"I very much look forward to the addition of Becky Hammon to our staff," said Poppovich. "Having observed her working with our team this past season, I'm confident her basketball IQ, work ethic and interpersonal skills will be a great benefit to the Spurs."

Hammon said it was made clear to her by Poppovich that her hiring was strictly related to her qualifications in basketball. "He says, 'It just so happens you're a woman,'" said Hammon during a press conference.

In an interview with Jeré Longman of The New York Times, Hammon "called her role as a pioneer 'a tremendous honor.' But, she added of Popovich: 'Honestly, I don't think he gives two cents that I'm a woman. And I don't want to be hired because I'm a woman.' The important point, Hammon said, was 'I'm getting hired because I'm capable.'"

Another basketball trialblazer, Nancy Lieberman, who is the assistant general manager of the Texas Legends, the NBA Development League affiliate of the Dallas Mavericks, told The New York Times that Hammon's hiring "was a crucial step for the NBA and for women.

"First and foremost, this means respect," said Lieberman. "She did not get hired just because she is a woman. She was hired because she was qualified, because they know her personality, how she interacts with players, how she understands X's and O's."

"I think it's no surprise to anybody that they think a little bit different down here," said Hammon of the Spurs. Indeed, and as espnW columnist Kate Fagan wrote: "A very high, very thick glass wall cracked.

"Realistically, the league had no model in place for hiring a female coach; a team neded to be the first, to prove it could work. And it makes sense that San Antonio, the reigning NBA champs, a franchise that has always marched very effectively to the beat of its own drum, has stepped forward and done just that."

Other media reaction has largely been positive. San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist Ann Killion wrote: "The Spurs are an organization that doesn't need fake publicity or splashy headlines. Hammon wasn't hired for looks or her Nike endorsement or her name; name many people outside hard-core WNBA fans and former Colorado State fans even know who she is.

"She was hired by the best head coach in the league. Gregg Popovich is a man who doesn't suffer fools, media, phoniness or distractions gladly. He hired Hammon because he thought she would do a good job. Period."

Killion's colleague at the San Francisco Chronicle, NBA columnist Bruce Jenkins, said of Hammon: "She could not be more ready to become the first female assistant on an NBA bench."

In his New York Times story, Longman noted that around the NBA, Hammon's hiring "has been met with wide congratulations. 'Very bright basketball mind,' Kobe Bryant posted on Twitter."

Even President Obama took time out to congratulate Hammon. The White House tweeted: "Congrats to @BeckyHammon, @NBA's first full-time female coach. When #WomenSucceed, America succeeds -- and we know the @Spurs will, too. -bo"

While naysayers might think of the Spurs hiring of Hammon as a publicity stunt, I don't. It's obvious that her hiring came after extensive research and interviews, and that the rest of the Spurs' staff would be amenable to what Jenkins labeled as Popovich's "brave new world."

Hopefully, Hammon's hire will open doors for other female coaches and prove there shouldn't be gender barriers anywhere. Kudos to the San Antonio Spurs. After all, they're a team that's ahead of the NBA in a league that's ahead of the game when it comes to racial and gender inclusiveness.

Photos: Courtesy of NBA.com and WNBA.com.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Studying our dining habits through a photographer's lens


Dinner in New York, 2014 / A mother and her baby daughter share dinner together in their
Upper West Side home while visiting via Skype with grandmother in Boston.

Eating dinner today involves a lot of multitasking and, increasingly, a lot of media consumption. It didn't always used to be this way.

Once upon a time, the family dinner was a chance for parents and kids to enjoy socializing with each other on any number of topics from school activities to presidential politics. Not so much anymore as dining has shifted from a primary to a secondary activity in our short-attention span-but-hurried lives. Now, it's not uncommon in many dining rooms for a TV set to be on that's airing a favorite program or, maybe, the stereo is playing ambient mood music -- even a radio might be tuned into a baseball game. Of course, for some, TV sets and radios are so old school when an iPad or iPhone are much more portable.

"The spread of the Internet, computers and cellphones in recent years has given people many methods of communication, and dinner has lost its original essence," says New York-based photojournalist Miho Aikawa, who more than four years ago decided to explore the subject of modern dinner by photographing people eating in New York City, focusing primarily on "private dinner moments."

"The changes in society, as well as the people who form them, have led to a shift in how we spend our dinner time," adds Aikawa, who has also studied people eating in Tokyo, too.

I came across Aikawa's excellent series of photographs entitled "Dinner in NY," via a recent feature about her work in Slate.com while (what else?) eating -- lunch not dinner -- and, it got me thinking about how multitasking and media consumption affect how I dine.

Let's see, eating breakfast offers me a chance to listen to NPR's "Morning Edition" on the radio while reading the print edition of The New York Times. At lunch, I alternate between glancing at my news feed on Facebook or perusing The San Francisco Chronicle e-edition on my MacBook Pro. As for dinner, well ... I'm guilty as charged about having the TV set on to watch a sporting event on ESPN or, maybe, "Chopped" on the Food Network, while I nosh on homemade pizza served with a butter lettuce salad, a bowl of fresh-cut Tomatero strawberries and a glass of Kermit Lynch French red wine.

Mind you, my wife and I still use our dinner time to enjoy stimulating conversation about a wide range of topics that include: sports, literature, food, music, travel and gardening. We like to keep it light. Nothing too heavy, although sometimes we might watch The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC whilst we dine. The other night, for something entirely different, we viewed an episode of Jerry's Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee that featured Jon Stewart online with our laptop occupying the corner of the dining room table. Seinfeld's online comedy show was welcome company at our dinner table.

"Initially, I had hoped to use this project as a means to provide inspiration and a chance to reflect on the reality and the potential of what dinner is, and can be," Aikawa wrote on her Facebook page. "Of course, there can be many different types of dinner, and the project is not about changing any one's dinner habits. I don't think having dinner with a cell phone, or laptop is bad or wrong. One of my subjects was talking with her grandmother via Skype during her dinner, and it can enhance the pleasure of the table."

Note: Aikwa's series, "Dinner in NY" is on display in this year's edition of The Fence at Brooklyn Bridge Park through October.

Photo  © 2014 by Miho Aikawa Photography.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Baseball isn't perfect ... but it feels like it is


The Hall of Fame Class of 2014 / (L-R) Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa,
Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Greg Maddux, Joe Torre.

"Baseball isn't perfect, but it feels like it is," said Joe Torre, one of six living inductees, whose speech capped a lively and, at times, emotion-filled day packed with wonderful stories and heartfelt memories as the Class of 2014 was honored in ceremonies and welcomed to Major League Baseball's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. on Sunday afternoon.

On a day when baseball got it right, the tone of Torre's speech was best described by The New York Times "as if designated to deliver the greatness-of-the-game testimonial." 

And he did.

"We're responsible for giving it the respect it deserves," said Torre, who managed the New York Yankees to six American League pennants (1996, 1998-2001, 2003) and won four World Series (1996, 1998-2000).

During the nationally televised three-hour ceremony, Torre was joined at the podium by fellow managers Bobby Cox and Tony LaRussa, slugger Frank Thomas and pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. Each living great -- and I saw all of them play or manage -- exemplified the game in the right way. Together, they represented quite an assemblage of accomplishments across the baseball diamond: World Series championships, Cy Young Award winners, Most Valuable Player awards.

Decent men all of them, too.

Roger Angell accepting the J.G. Taylor Spink Award

Baseball also got it right when it enshrined the esteemed Roger Angell, a longtime writer and editor for The New Yorker, who received the J.G. Taylor Spink Award on Saturday, the Baseball Hall of Fame's writing honor. The bespectacled Angell, 93 and thin, is revered for his revealing portraits and essays on baseball, which began appearing in The New Yorker in the early 1960s. Since then, they have been compiled into several books filled full of meditations and observations about our national pastime, most notably The Summer Game, which I first read as a teenager. I still treasure the book's words today like the literary baseball bible it is.

In his debut as a baseball writer for The New Yorker in 1962, Angell wrote a wonderful essay full of humor and insight about attending spring training in Florida. "Big-league ball on the west coast of Florida is a spring sport played by the young for the divertissement of the elderly -- a sun-warmed, sleepy exhibition celebrating the juvenescence of the year and the senescence of the fans."

Many have acclaimed Angell as the greatest baseball writer. "Angell's prose is clear and erudite, elegant and informed; he is a fan with a wicked eye for detail, a sense of humor and a curiosity about the way athletes perform," wrote Richard Sandomir in The New York Times. "He filled his notebooks but did not have to convert his jottings into an article under a tight deadline. He had months to digest his observations and then wrote long -- very long."

Said Angell: "I didn't have to write after a game. That was unforgivable."

Angell's main job for many years at The New Yorker was as a fiction editor, a job once held by his mother, Katherine White. His stepfather was the famous children's author E.B. White, who penned Charlotte's Web. So, it's no surprise that writing became Angell's life-long passion. He was raised in good company.

"When he accepted the award Saturday at Doubleday Field," wrote Sandomir, "Angell said that he collected '.300 lifetime talkers like a billionaire hunting down Cézannes and Matisses' -- loquacious folks like Keith Hernandez, Roger Craig, Bill Rigney and Dan Quisenberry. And he gave his thanks to baseball, 'which has turned out to be so familiar and so startling, so spacious and so exacting, and so easy looking and so heartbreakingly difficult that it filled my notebooks in a rush.'"

Peter Gammons, like Angell, a longtime chronicler of baseball, wrote: "It isn't simply nostalgia, it is a weekend that allows us a sense of where we are. As Angell spoke, one thought about a life of literacy, not tweets, that not only did he wrote so elegantly, but he edited John Updike, he edited John McPhee, which made me recall the sign Angell said McPhee had in his kitchen: 'When everything is going your way, you're probably in the wrong lane.'"

Angell is a "lover of books and words," wrote Maureen Dowd in a wonderful New York Times Sunday Review column that appeared over the weekend. His prose combines his love of language with his passion for baseball. "Who else could use 'venery' in a story and write the world's longest palindrome?" she asked.

"Within the ballpark, time moves differently, marked by no clock except the events of the game," wrote Angell in The Summer Game, the first of his seven books about baseball"This is the unique, unchangeable feature of baseball, and perhaps explains why this sport, for all the enormous changes it has undergone in the past decade or two, remains somehow rustic, unviolent, and introspective. Baseball's time is seamless and invisible, a bubble within which players move at exactly the same pace and rhythms as all their predecessors. This is the way the game was played in our youth and in our fathers' youth, and even back then -- back in the country days -- there must have been the same feeling that time could be stopped. Since baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly; keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young."

Indeed, baseball hasn't always been perfect, but this past weekend it felt like it was. It made me feel forever young.

Photographs: Courtesy of MLB.com.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

What a mural can tell us about our glorious past


Our glorious past / A mural depicts the famous Key System
electric trains that connected Oakland and San Francisco.

There are many colorful, vivid and fascinating murals that dot the urban landscape in my Oakland neighborhood. While some of them are reminders of the glorious past history of this East Bay city situated across the bay from San Francisco, in particular, one of them depicts the famous Key System electric trains.

Believe me, there's plenty we can learn from studying a single, neo-WPA mural.

The Key Route Plaza mural, a 23-by-14-foot colorful and historic mural created by local artist Rocky Baird in 2005, tells a story about a bygone era of transportation that once connected Oakland and San Francisco, two major northern California cities on opposite sides of San Francisco Bay.

The Key System electric trolley car company established its first transit depot at Key Route Plaza, at the corner of Piedmont Avenue and 41st Street in Oakland, in 1904. The orange and silver train depicted in the mural that is located on what formerly was part of the transit depot is Car No. 159 on the C-Line which, according to a historic plaque, made its final departure from Piedmont Station on April 19, 1958 at 6:45 p.m.

The quixotic creator of the Key Route, Francis Marion "Borax" Smith, is a larger-than-life giant figure shown in the mural. He was a Nevada mining magnate who made his fortune in borax before he lost much of it in transit. The key that he is holding "has three rings at its handle to symbolize three lines to Berkeley, Oakland and Piedmont. The long stem represents the Key Pier, which carried trains about three miles over the bay, and the teeth represent the ferry slip," wrote Sam Whiting in a 2005 San Francisco Chronicle article.

At its height during the 1940s, the Key System had over 66 miles of track and serviced the hills and dales of Oakland and Berkeley as well as other East Bay cities like Alameda, Emeryville, Piedmont, San Leandro, El Cerrito, Richmond and Albany.

A historic plaque at the site of Key Route Plaza.

According to the commemorative plaque at Key Route Plaza, back in 1939 it took the streamlined trains 27 minutes to travel from Oakland's Piedmont Station over the Bay Bridge to the First and Mission Station in "The City." Not bad considering that in 2014 it still takes 20 minutes to travel by light rail transit on BART from MacArthur Station in Oakland to Embarcadero Station in San Francisco.

The Key Route Plaza mural is filled with other symbolism, too. There are sections of the mural in which we see figures representing the Black Power and Women's Suffrage movements as well as a link to U.S. military might and our need for petroleum.

According to the artist, who was interviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle about the mural, "the mural took two months of research and three months of painting." At a cost of $5,000 to create, Baird sold off the window seats in the train at $500 each to help raise funds.

Today, half of the depot sits idle while it awaits refurbishing into a cafe, while the other half has morphed into a popular municipal parking lot, which tells the fate of a train system that was displaced by the rise and popularity of the automobile.

To learn more about the history of the Key System: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Key_System

To read more about the history of Oakland's electric trains: http://www.oaklandmagazine.com/Oakland-Magazine/January-2008/When-Trains-Ruled-the-East-Bay/

Photos by Michael Dickens ©2014.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History


The Roosevelts: An Intimate History /
Ken Burns in conversation at San Francisco's Castro Theatre.

Why do we cry when we see a Ken Burns documentary? Perhaps, it's because the documentary filmmaker has a remarkable talent for telling stories through real people.

"History is sharing the process of discovery," said Burns, whose 1990 film The Civil War brought him to the forefront of documentary filmmaking in the United States. He is known for his style of using archival footage and photographs. "Preserving the past is one of the greatest things you can do for the future."

Burns, 60, has also directed films about other subjects familiar to Americans, including: Baseball (1994), Jazz (2001), The War (2007), The National Parks: America's Best Idea (2009), Prohibition (2011) and The Central Park Five (2012).

This fall, the Emmy Award-winning Burns returns with a new film that depicts the monumental saga of an exceptional American family whose impact is still felt across the nation.

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, a new seven-part, 14-hour documentary directed by Burns and written by Geoffrey C. Ward, will debut nationwide on PBS on September 14. The film weaves together the stories of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, three members of one of the most prominent and influential American political families.

Recently, I had the chance to preview The Roosevelts: An Intimate History during an evening with Ken Burns at San Francisco's Castro Theatre, which was sponsored by KQED, in partnership with Kraw Law Group and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. Burns was in San Francisco not only to promote The Roosevelts in front of a captive and enthusiastic audience, but also to interview legendary San Francisco Giants baseball player Willie Mays for a future documentary he is currently working on about Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in the 1947.

In The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, said Burns, for the first time we truly get to veer into the private lives of the most public of people. And, it's the first time their individuals stories have been interwoven into a single narrative.

Over 20,000 archived photos went into the making of The Roosevelts. We see Theodore, who was once a sickly boy, storm into Washington like an officer charging into battle. We learn of Franklin, struck down by illness, and how he pulls himself back up while at the same time lifting the U.S. out of the Great Depression and World War II. And, we see how Eleanor redefines the role of First Lady while inspiring millions of Americans. The documentary follows the Roosevelts for over a century, from the birth of Theodore in 1858 to Eleanor's death in 1962.

"You can't expect people like that to happen all the time," said historian David McCullough, who appears on camera throughout the documentary. Adds fellow historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who also appears on screen in The Roosevelts: "It's an extraordinary story. The drama is unmatched in our history."

According to Burns, the story of the Roosevelts raises many questions, such as: "What is the role of government in society?" and "What is heroism?" While it may be impossible to sum up in a sentence or two what Burns learned from working on The Roosevelts, one thing he said he took away from his work is this: FDR had an extraordinary ability to communicate.

The only thing we have to fear ... is fear itself.

"History is a rising road," said Burns. "Human nature is always the same. There at times has been incivility, but what's interesting is what's the same."

To learn more: The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

Photograph: Michael Dickens ©2014.